At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis. By Shearer Davis Bowman. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. 392. $30.00 cloth)

The intended innovation of At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis derives not from new sources but from its interpretive application of the notion of honor to both North and South. According to Bowman, Americans everywhere believed that their views represented what was most American and honorable; therefore, nobody could compromise without appearing to submit to degradation. The utility of the book lies not in what it reveals about disunion between "North" and "South," for it oversimplifies both regions into caricatures, but rather what it reveals about the middle and border regions that do not fit into tired generalizations.

In eight thematic chapters drawing on secondary sources, Lincoln's papers, and a few published diaries and contemporary newspapers, [End Page 486] Bowman uses broad strokes to paint the political and economic landscape of the United States on the brink of war as background to his central claim that honorable refusal to submit to degradation motivated Americans on all sides of the secession crisis, each of whom insisted that his (two women appear for a total of about five pages each) principles, descended from the nation's Founders, could not be compromised. The result contains the strengths and limitations of the broad-brush approach. Considering North and South supplements books such as Russell McClintock's Lincoln and the Decision for War (2008) and Anne Rubin's A Shattered Nation (2005), which describe how residents of a single section behaved but cannot convey the stimuli to which they were reacting.

The recurring emphasis on honor allows readers to consider the thesis throughout the book. Yet, since, according to Bowman, North and South shared the most important value, the book must explain why two regions who agreed on the most important thing went to war, and therefore the portraits of "North" and "South" revert to stereotypes; when basic facts do not fit, they are omitted or dismissed as "ironies." For example, Bowman needs an industrial North to contrast with an agricultural South, so despite the fact that most Northerners lived and farmed in small settlements, Bowman's "North" consists of New York City and Chicago, cities that were important, but also quite foreign to most of the actual Northerners whom Bowman purports to explain. Because Bowman needs a steadfastly "states' rights" South as a foil for a procentralization North, the book waves aside multiple ways in which white Southerners demanded expanded federal power and white Northerners opposed it, for example, the unprecedented expansion of federal power represented by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law embraced by white Southerners, and insistence on states' rights embraced by northern legislatures that passed personal-liberty laws. Key political developments (proposed Senate Resolutions on Slavery, 1860, the Alabama Platform, the congressional letter of December 13, 1860, the Coercion Clauses passed by Upper South conventions) are absent, presumably because if the major causal factor was a timeless "feeling" like honor, specific events do not matter [End Page 487] much. Consequently, readers who hope to understand secession and its repercussions will be disappointed.

Readers willing to harvest insight from tangential aspects of the book will benefit. Coverage of the Kentucky 1849-50 state constitutional convention and the complexity the book allows to "proslavery nationalism" within Kentucky stand in welcome contrast to overgeneralization (p. 154). Additionally, the treatment of Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democratic presidential candidate in 1860) allows readers to tease out Breckinridge's radicalization from 1840s proponent of popular sovereignty to 1860 champion of a federal slave code. Bowman does not explain the transformation, but by allowing the reader to notice it alongside the collapse of the national Democratic Party, the book offers space to contemplate explanations for the secession crisis less dependent on oversimplification and more attuned to the complicated, expectation-defying reality that bewildered those who lived through secession almost as thoroughly as it has flummoxed historians since.

Chandra Manning

Chandra Manning teaches history at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She is author of What This Cruel War Was...